Automaker William Clay Ford Sr. couldn't make Lions hum

The football epitaphs for William Clay Ford Sr. will focus on the Detroit Lions' record in the 50 years he owned the team, the one playoff victory more than 20 years ago, the failure to reach a Super Bowl. Ford, who died Sunday at age 88, never knew the success on the field that he did at Ford Motors where, as a grandson of the automotive pioneer Henry Ford, he played an integral role in setting the design course for the automaker where he worked for 57 years.

But for all of the struggles of the franchise he bought on Nov. 22, 1963 -- a celebratory lunch at a local hotel was interrupted by a waitress who told Ford of President John F. Kennedy's assassination -- Ford actually rescued the Lions from greater chaos when he bought them.

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Ford wound up buying the Lions for $6 million in a bid that caught the other shareholders of the team by surprise. During his time at the helm, he moved the Lions to the Pontiac Silverdome in the suburbs and then back to Ford Field as part of a bid to assist economic redevelopment in downtown Detroit. Detroit hosted two Super Bowls in what league insiders consider a compliment from the owners to Ford. And there has long been a theory that a Thanksgiving game might not be played in Detroit every year, particularly in the years that the team struggled on the field, had it not meant so much to Ford and the team.

But the Lions might have been undone by the quality in Ford that would be anyone's most admirable except when it is viewed through the narrow prism of a won-loss ledger: He was notably loyal, probably too loyal, even to those who were failing him.

Before he bought the team for himself, Ford was first a shareholder of the Lions -- one of 144 at the time, which created a glut of owners, but no clear decision-maker. In 1961 took over as the president while in-fighting among the other stakeholders played out.

Ford had grown up watching Lions games, and the lore is that an intemperate reaction to one game against the Bears in 1961 spurred one of Ford's brothers to remark that he should buy the team to straighten it out. Ford would regularly travel to games, but bad weather kept him from reaching Chicago that December and, according to a profile in the Detroit Free Press Magazine that ran in 1963, Ford grew so angry by a play in the game -- which Chicago led 15-9 late in the fourth quarter -- that he kicked a hole in the television screen.

Then, according to the story, Ford realized the game was not over so he "scurried frantically around his mansion (and) located a radio in the servants' quarters just in time to hear" the game-winning touchdown scored for the Lions.

He bought the team -- to the relief of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and other owners because it ended the lack of organizational control. Ford was a favorite of players and other team employees (before he took full control of the team he and his wife would sometimes stop by a Grosse Point restaurant where players gathered for dinner after games) because he was a relatable magnate, generous and kind. Early on, he allowed players to pick out a Ford car to use for a year, and it is believed that he paid the fine the league imposed as punishment for star player Alex Karras gambling on games. One year, he gave each player $100 to go Christmas shopping.

Still, the Lions, who won three championships in the 1950s, began to irrevocably slide shortly after Ford took over. Coach George Wilson, who won a championship for the Lions in 1957, quit after the 1964 season, and the Lions entered a long mostly fallow period, making the postseason just once before 1982. Ford, to the dismay of fans, struggled to make changes. He was deeply involved at Ford Motors but delegated much of his authority with the Lions and rarely attended the league's regular meetings of owners.

"In my own mind, I often linked Mr. Ford and Jets owner Leon Hess, who owned Hess Oil," said Joe Browne, the longest-tenured NFL executive, who began working in the league office in 1965. "They both had multibillion-dollar businesses to help run in addition to the teams. However, when either one attended league meetings and spoke, other owners -- and certainly our league executives -- listened very closely."

Ford was very much an off-the-radar owner, not given to public pronouncements and little known even to the younger generation of owners except for his very famous last name. The lack of a strong public presence, especially as the team foundered, frustrated Lions fans. Russ Thomas was the general manager for 22 years, despite just three playoff appearances. Although Wayne Fontes led something of a team renaissance in the mid-1990s, he wound up with both the most wins and the most losses by a coach in team history. And, in the tipping point that ultimately led Ford's son Bill to publicly display his frustration, Matt Millen, who had no prior player development or front office experience when he was hired out of the broadcast booth, remained general manager from 2001 until early in the 2008 season -- the year the team went 0-16 -- despite authoring a 31-84 record, the worst eight-year record in the history of the modern NFL.

"Mr. Ford was not a kind of guy who showed his authority," the former Lions player Mel Farr told the Detroit Free Press. Farr bought his first Ford dealership soon after he retired. "And I can see how it'd be very difficult for Bill to be able to determine -- he was a guy that did not want to exert his power, never have. But some of the people that he'd stick with (were) not very good."

Ultimately, for most of the time he owned them, neither were the Lions. In recent years, Bill Jr., William Clay Ford Sr.'s son, has been steering the team as vice chairman, and that is not expected to change now. But the NFL is an increasingly impatient business. Since 2000, the Lions have made just one playoff appearance and despite having a wealth of young stars, they are starting over again, having hired Jim Caldwell as their new coach.

As Detroit mourns an influential business and civic leader, it is probably worth remembering the estimable, if ultimately unsuccessful, approach Ford took to owning the Lions. After the team lost to the Washington Redskins in the 1991 NFC Championship Game -- their only such appearance in franchise history -- Fontes spotted Ford and his wife standing in the snow on a street corner, waiting for their car to pick them up, the Free Press reported. Fontes got off the bus -- Ford declined to get on to stay warm because he didn't want to interfere -- and apologized for the way the team played in a 41-10 loss.

"He just kind of said, 'I understand,' " Fontes told the newspaper. "And he said, 'Maybe next year.' "

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.